Framework for Explaining Change
The Becoming Americans theme explains how we, the Foundation’s historians,
believe history works. We understand that the distinctive values and beliefs
that give this nation its identity have been formed in a complex, never-ending,
give-and-take process of conflict and accommodation. It is a story that tells
how diverse peoples, holding different and sometimes conflicting personal
ambitions, evolved into a society that valued both liberty and equality. Americans
cherish these values as their birthright, even when their promise remains
unfulfilled. At stake always have been the aspirations of ordinary people.
The philosophical and constitutional principles that validated those aspirations
This ceaseless tug-of-war among self-interested parties has always been the central
dynamic in our democracy. It has always been the aggressive force that challenged
the status quo and undermined the prevailing balance of power. The clash of interests
that animates the Williamsburg story deserves our special attention because these
were the encounters that profoundly shaped American identity and American values.
- Diverse People
- Many different peoples met in North America in the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries—Europeans from numerous nations and
regions, Africans from distant and often dissimilar societies,
and Native Americans from many tribal backgrounds.
- Clashing Interests
- The customs, values, and beliefs that new arrivals brought to their encounters
with each other and with the environment bore some superficial similarities, but
more often were marked by profound differences. The experience of immigration and
resettlement exaggerated differences between self-interested individuals and
dissimilar ethnic and cultural groups.
- Shared Values
- Whether the encounters between newcomers were peaceful or confrontational, they
gradually produced informal accommodations to a new set of beliefs and values
that could already be discerned by the middle of the eighteenth century.
- Some of these shared assumptions have become fundamental rights
that all Americans expect, however diverse their backgrounds
and however differently they understand and apply their common
ideals. These values gave meaning to the people’s personal lives most
importantly—to their family and social relationships, to their
attitudes about gender, class, and race, their work and ambitions for
property and wealth, to their ideas and philosophies, and to their
- Formative Institutions
- These personal values also formed the basic assumptions that created and
shaped the economic, political, and cultural institutions that brought order
and control to public interactions between different peoples.
- Because these personal and institutional values had many practical
applications in people’s everyday social relations, they became defining
qualities in an emerging American identity. Some served to justify the
war for national independence.
- Partial Freedoms
- The revolutionary debate gave voice to these principles, but later events
left their great promise unfulfilled for many. Continuing inequalities of
wealth, patriarchal presumptions, and antidemocratic institutions blunted
the radical social implications of the revolutionary philosophy and
restricted its immediate blessings to a select and privileged few.
- The cultural encounters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
also produced the ideas and practices that resisted the egalitarian
impulse. Racism, violence, environmental degradation, the exploitation
of labor, and the deprecation of women became the darker side of the
- Revolutionary Promise
- Although these obstacles to the pursuit of happiness persist, the
most positive and progressive American ideals have always exerted a
powerful hold on the popular imagination. In spite of the inherent
contradictions in these ideals and the conflicts they encourage
between divergent visions of the good life, they have never ceased
to raise expectations and inspire hope that more Americans may secure
a meaningful voice in taking responsibility for their own lives.